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1Paradigms have finite life-spans. Like the generations to which they are tied, they ultimately depart, making way for new explanatory theories. In the best scenarios, new paradigms will prove more relevant than the ones they replace. They will incorporate more variables and will enable a better assessment of the complex reality they seek to interrogate. In other cases, advances made as a result of new paradigms can seem less significant, causing one to question the pertinence of the theoretical innovations put forth. Proponents of hegemonic paradigms, moreover, strongly resist and keenly critique nascent, competing paradigms. But over the long term – on the scale of a succession of generations – the paradigm war and the gradual but unstoppable marginalization of older paradigms yields positive effects. Knowledge slowly becomes more profound, penetrating, and coherent. This occurs despite the fact that in the social sciences, as opposed to what is generally accepted for the natural sciences, a plurality of paradigms is still the order of the day: constellations of competing paradigms succeed one another over time.

2Let us be clear at the outset: several signs indicate that French political science is experiencing a period of paradigm shift. Like any silent long-term transformation, this shift is neither evident to all nor easily discernible. Time must be taken, therefore, to delineate and demonstrate it. New modes of thought have difficulty making themselves visible when up against their predecessors; the presence of the latter is literally blinding. But the present paradigm shift is real, and its importance is immense – so much so that soon it will not be possible to formulate arguments according to previously dominant frameworks. [2] The very title of this article will, before long, become obsolete. An examination of “French political science” will no longer make sense in a future in which paradigm confrontations take place at the international level, as they do in the natural sciences, a point that will be developed below. For reasons of method, it is permissible to refer to “political science in France” – but certainly no longer to “French political science”. The edited volume that has generated the reflections contained in this article illustrates this contention through the provenance of its component essays. The authors are variously German, English, Austrian, French, and Dutch; two of the essays have been translated from English to French, and one from German to French.

3Since the relative stabilization of political science in France – following the period in which the discipline faced the “challenge of professionalization” [3] – the current shift in research agendas [4] is the second to take place. From 1970-1975, French political science was divided among six competing paradigms, most of which subsequently disappeared, while others were profoundly transformed. Twenty years later, from 1990-1995, the outcome was apparent: a different constellation of research agendas now held sway, one that hardly had anything in common with the dominant configuration of 1970-1975. A first paradigm shift had indeed taken place over these two decades. In 2010, an intellectual generation later, the constellation of paradigms is once again undergoing transformation – and the resulting landscape will not resemble the one with which we are now familiar. From this perspective, therefore, I cannot go along with the overly socio-historical analysis of the authors of the conclusion to Rational Choice in Political Science, who assert that since “the paths taken by the various social sciences [are] largely determined by historical and institutional context”, the scholarly debate remains marked by “a certain inertia”. [5] According to these authors, it is thus not possible to observe, “especially in political science”, paradigm shifts such as those described by Thomas Kuhn. On the contrary, I will show that this inertia is relative. With the hindsight of twenty years, the paradigm configurations of French political science are currently experiencing such considerable transformation that it is indeed possible to observe, mutatis mutandis, a “scientific revolution” as articulated by Kuhn. And it goes without saying that in the future, this same process of the incessant replacement of paradigms will continue to occur. [6] Before turning at length to rational choice theories, I will discuss some of the key developments in the succession of paradigmatic revolutions in French political science and describe the underlying social evolutions that provoked such transformations.

4The paradigm configuration of 1970-1975 can be described by drawing upon a report I presented to the French Political Science Association in 1980. [7] Since this report’s cataloging of paradigms was contested neither at the time nor since, I can justify still making reference to it. In brief, at the time, two research agendas were firmly established: an empiricist paradigm – concerning, for example, studies of elections, studies based on polls, or studies of what was generally termed “political life” – and a constitutionalist paradigm – which assigned a determinant role to institutional rules and to central political actors. Two other research agendas were more properly “sociological”, according to the current meaning of the term. An “extensive” sociology (today one would say “historical” sociology) was centered on the longue durée (for example, the work of Stein Rokkan, Barrington Moore, Perry Anderson, and several others), and a new political sociology sought inspiration from sociology’s founding fathers. In addition, a strong Marxist current subsisted in a few sectors of French political science, while still others attempted to promote a research agenda drawn from psychoanalysis.

5Twenty years later, this constellation of paradigms had almost completely disappeared. Beginning in the decade following the 1970-1975 period, three of the six paradigms above became marginal: the constitutionalist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic paradigms. The empiricist research agenda had changed direction, in that the recourse to mathematical formalization and to modeling had been practically banned, both from training in political science and from prominent scholarly production. [8] The historical sociology paradigm, which I referred to at the time as “extensive” sociology, was transformed into something not far from its opposite, the socio-history of politics. The research agendas that were termed “sociological” spread progressively throughout the intellectual universe of political science, while simultaneously splitting into multiple theoretical constructions. At the end of the 1990s, the key themes of French political science could accordingly be listed as follows: interactionism, in its various forms; “critical” sociology, or better, structural-constructivist sociology (Bourdieu); sociology of justification or of “worth” (Boltanski); constructivism, or better, constructivisms; [9] and the socio-history of politics. [10]

6The list no longer ends there. The paradigm shift currently taking place likely does not allow us, at this time, to draw up a new list of the paradigms that are replacing the older ones – a point to which I will return. Yet it is clear that the research agendas of the final decade of the twentieth century have largely lost their scientific efficacy. [11] Consider two paradigms that very recently appeared dominant: first and foremost, the socio-history of politics. It can hardly be contested that this paradigm is today exhausted and incapable of overcoming the two difficulties that prevent it from attaining maturity as a paradigm. The numerous dissertations defended under its auspices do not lead to cumulative knowledge, having so conformed to the French model of doctoral excellence aptly described by Christophe Bouillaud: [12] a singular field (in this case, archival); “a sophisticated empiricism” that does not avoid “descriptivism” [13]; and thus an extreme dispersal of studies that prevents any meaningful pooling of results. Hence the consubstantial impossibility of reconsidering the problems of political science in light of socio-historical studies [14] – with the significant exception of the “mega-object” of European Union construction. [15] There is no real mystery here. Lacking a theory of politics to test, the culture of the historical fact for its own sake prevails, and the production of monographs becomes an end in itself. Advocates of this paradigm thus come together around methodological problems – or to debate their relationship to history, the nature of boundaries between the disciplines, or, according to a famous title, “disciplinary cilices and wanderings”. [16] The most recent synthesis, Pratiques et méthodes de la socio-histoire [Practices and Methods of Socio-History], comes close, in my view, to registering this failure. [17] For my part, I would like to see the return of a historical sociology that, as opposed to the socio-history of politics, seeks to confront major long-term problems. An example of such a study is Jared Diamond’s book on the failure of societies – a decisive issue, if ever there was one. [18]

7A similar conclusion also applies to structural constructivist sociology. This fertile research agenda, which Pierre Bourdieu brought to maturity in the 1980s – and which French political science largely made its own in the era of the “Politix generation” [19] – must likewise be reconsidered. Its political assessments and critical function are firmly rooted in a now-bygone France. That France was still characterized by a traditional political division of labor; and the privatization of classes at both ends of the social spectrum (elites and low-income workers) was still limited. Capitalism had not yet become basically predatory, and financial speculation was not yet computer-assisted. [20] With regard to political science in France, the Nouveau manuel de science politique [The New Political Science Textbook], published in 2009, is like this paradigm’s swansong: a vast work in the service of a paradigm that is disappearing. [21] Those who use this “new textbook” should know that it will hardly give them access to the paradigms at the heart of current scholarly debates. Such access is increasingly provided by other textbooks. [22] The Nouveau manuel de science politique rejects pragmatic sociology, comprehensive sociology, [23] and methodological individualism. [24] Haphazardly, it also rejects interactionism, rational choice, and any formalization or modeling of social facts.

8So while Bourdieu’s sociology is not going to vanish body and soul, it will cease to dominate – indeed monopolize – the field. It will reconstitute itself, trading in some of its fragmented parts for new paradigms, which will no longer apply this sociology faithfully and without reservation. Luc Boltanski, who understands this, has recently undertaken a reintegration of critical sociology and pragmatic sociology [25] – even if he is not the best placed person to do so, having first too unconditionally advocated, and then later too strongly critiqued, Bourdieu’s approach. Young scholars, who were not involved in the genesis of these theories, are the ones who will progressively reconstruct this paradigm, with full intellectual freedom. [26] In this way, a retrospective reconsideration of the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu – now an essential imperative – will take place. [27] One cannot help viewing structural constructivist sociology and the socio-history of politics as perfect illustrations of Imre Lakatos’ remark about “empirically progressive” research agendas (they explore new fields) that are nonetheless “theoretically degenerative” (the research question becomes increasingly impoverished). [28]

9Given the limited scope of this article, I cannot explore at length the social developments that condition paradigm shifts in French political science. Instead, I will present four determining factors: two having to do with the profound changes in the discipline’s scientific practices, and two tied to transformations in French society.

10While still marginal fifteen years ago, [29] the opening of political science in France to the international scene has today become the norm. Young political scientists all work in at least two, if not three, languages. [30] Their scholarship of reference comes far more from the anglo-phone world than from France. This is not a point about the linguistic competence of certain scholars; rather, it is the recognition of a scientific revolution. French political science is finally operating in the manner of the natural sciences. It would be inconceivable for a biologist or a particle physicist to work solely with French sources for lack of English-language skills. To this end, the internet greatly boosts internationalization. Since the mid-1990s, and with an exponential progression, several powerful technological applications have enabled the dissemination of research results worldwide and an increase in the number of potential academic contacts. No longer can anyone invoke the practical impossibility of accessing others’ studies or of making available one’s own. The theories of reference are henceforth the ensemble of theories put forward in the scholarly world. The research questions posed thus become infinitely larger and more varied. It is evidently in this manner that political science, which had become unitary, is now able to be cumulative. [31]

11To take full measure of this development, consider the edited volume whose title evokes this shift of scale, involving political science’s subjects of study as much as its theories of reference: La science politique de l’Union européenne [Political Science of the European Union]. [32] The requirements expected of this book’s contributors are exemplary (even if complied with in variable fashion). Each chapter must begin by providing a discussion of the state of the international field with regard to the subject under consideration, after which it must assess “the way in which French or Francophone political science positions itself in this field”. [33] It must then propose specific avenues of research. In this way, the book elegantly overcomes one of the perils contained in the internationalization of science: the creation of a mainstream, real or imagined, with which the least autonomous scientific communities align. In the blueprint itself for each contribution to La science politique de l’Union européenne is thus inscribed the imperative of an international scholarly reference point. This imperative does not prevent contributors from then opting to use analytical frameworks developed in France – only now, they are equipped with a sound understanding of the field at large. [34] If indeed there is a “new” political science textbook, La science politique de l’Union européenne is surely it.

12The other major development internal to the discipline results from changes in the relative positioning of political science’s various fields of inquiry. For a long time, the scholarly field of reference was the political sociology of states – a field that examined states on the basis of their internal dimensions only. The field of international relations, for its part, remained a domain confined to specialists; it was understood that such scholars would keep to themselves. In this configuration, public policy occupied a somewhat removed place, [35] and comparative studies were rarely undertaken. Consequently, the scholarly theories elaborated in each of these fields remained bounded within disciplinary areas that were still marginal. Rare were the sociologists who thought to question the “realist” or “neo-realist” paradigms in international relations, let alone the “liberal” paradigm. In the 1970s, no political sociologist paid attention to the sequential analysis of public policies or to approaches from administrative science. Fifteen years later, they likewise declined to engage in dialogue with the new institutionalism.

13This ostracizing of theories from dominated fields is no longer possible today. These fields have gained in importance and the debates they produce cannot be neglected. A sociologist of politics cannot ignore what is illuminated by theories of path dependence, advocacy coalition frameworks, or institutional design. Similarly, one cannot call oneself a “constructivist” today without including in this term the specific meaning that the constructivist paradigm takes in the field of international relations. [36] A critical sociologist cannot overlook theories termed “radical” – notably those of hegemony and counter-hegemony – in international relations. Likewise, a proponent of gender theory cannot fail to take into account approaches that demonstrate the shortcomings of an international studies founded on masculinity. [37] Paradigm shifts thus undo the compartmentalization of previously autonomous sub-disciplinary fields. They also reveal the considerable displacement of the boundaries that previously demarcated the various fields of study. Therefore, theoretical investigations in political science can no longer be limited to those stimulated by general sociology. Such a situation attests to a transformation of the world – a transformation that must be understood.

14In effect, paradigms rise or fall in political science for reasons not limited to the dynamics of scholarly debates. They rise or fall also because certain components of political entities are either transformed or disappear. Between the 1970s and today, and even since the more recent 1990s, the world has changed. It has changed, firstly, due to the rearrangements of sovereignty that each state experienced in a globalized – and, on a continental scale, Europeanized – world. While the issue is certainly far from being settled, the debate must be situated at this level. Is a kind of homogenization taking place at the scale of the “planet Earth”, and must we refer to a “global culture”? [38] Does homogenization occur only regionally – for instance, is there a “European model of civilization”, characterized by common elements such as the welfare state, a particular brand of capitalism, compatible party systems, and a stabilized relationship to religion? [39] The possession of political power within each state takes on a different nature when faced with all kinds of transnational configurations. This is not to say that it diminishes, since political power can disappear in one area and increase in another – thus requiring alternative sets of hypotheses. The prodigious development of tools of mass communication, via the interface of computers, progressively modifies aspects of social relations between individuals, between firms and clients, between industrial and financial actors, between readers and print media, and between political parties and their members. To understand these transformations, new research strategies – or at least expanded ones – are needed.

15The transformations experienced by states, which can no longer be understood solely as distinct national entities, are accompanied by social transformations equally fraught with consequences. In a country like France, the scope of these transformations is prodigious, involving a collapse of religious practice; a massive increase in the number of non-traditional families and thus a transformation of parental roles; a lengthening of the average life expectancy; an increase in permissiveness and a weakening of social control; a lowering of the age at which young people become independent; a “digitization” of the world through the widespread use of the computer and the smartphone; etc. Readers can complete this list as they wish – a list whose banality tends to make us take for granted the formidable social transformation it represents, one that is affirmed by all comparative research on successive generations.

16Consider, therefore, whether this transformation reflects, rather than produces, an evolution in which man is more and more focused on himself and his immediate circle. This observation applies to criminality: because the capacity of man for self-control, for the repression of desires, and for the respect of prohibitions has been modified, the use of violence has necessarily become more common. [40] It also applies to individuals’ principles for action: if man has become more individualistic, calculating, and opportunistic, he will now be more inclined to compare the costs and benefits of his choices, and to become a “rational actor”. Here the connection between social change and sociological paradigms becomes apparent, and the authors of Rational Choice in Political Science do not fail to emphasize this link, at least as a point to be debated. If man today has indeed become the “selfish and materialistic individual” produced by social evolution, then rational choice theory becomes a “particularly powerful and useful explanation of social life”. [41]

17At the time of this article’s writing, the paradigm shift in political science in France has not yet fully taken place. It will become more visible in the years ahead. For now, I can still attempt to predict and enumerate the paradigms that will soon become dominant – or if not dominant, that will at least become prerequisites in a political scientist’s training. These include new research agendas originating in constructivism and a paradigm resulting from the renaissance of historical macro-sociology. They also include a new integrative sociology, based on more extensive research, which has reconsidered its epistemological status and come to terms with its empirical dimension. Finally, they involve paradigms of gender, of pragmatism, of a renewed interactionism, and – here we get to the hub of the matter – of rational choice theory. The authors of Rational Choice in Political Science are fully aware of inserting themselves into the succession of paradigms discussed above. In this volume, therefore, one finds a study of the effects of the succession of scholarly generations in France [42] as well as an analysis of the shift in Germany from a paradigm of regulation to one of governance. [43] From a perspective that ranges across the discipline, the volume also contains reflections on the causes and manifestations of the considerable divide between the United States and Europe with regard to the implementation of rational choice theory. [44] I turn now to an examination of this theory.

18* * *

19Readers of Rational Choice in Political Science will first seek clarification of the meaning of rational choice theory. They will find such clarification throughout the book, in different forms. The contributors to this volume frequently provide their own definitions, and it is instructive to critically compare them. Consider a few examples. For Olivier Pamp, the rational choice approach, “drawing on game theory, contents itself with advancing hypotheses about actors’ decisions so as to model their strategic interactions”. [45] Likewise, Aurélien Evrard remarks that the rational choice approach “aims to highlight the role of actors, whose preferences are seen as clearly identifiable and stable, and who develop particular strategies in order to inaugurate or to oppose a change”. [46] In a manner that is both more concise and more precise, Pieter W. G. Bots explains that the notion of rational choice involves what I will call three indispensable elements (Bots calls them “concepts”): “an actor capable of choosing, a series of options among which he can choose, and the capacity to reason so as to select an option”. [47] He then immediately specifies, as if it were obvious, two points that in fact provoke debate: that an actor’s ability to reason implies a “capacity to make logically correct inferences”, and that “the actor is capable of evaluating the ultimate consequences of his choice of a particular option”. [48]

20In general, these definitions – which occasionally appear in other guises elsewhere in the book – are only preliminary. A different and much more useful basis for discussion is provided in the book’s introduction and conclusion, in the form of a list of postulates of rational choice theory. Borrowed in part from Raymond Boudon, these postulates, in abridged form, are as follows:


“1. The fundamental unit of society is the individual (postulate of methodological individualism).
2. Preferences are a given. One does not attempt to understand the reasons for actors’ preferences.
3. Preferences are ordered and transitive.
4. The agent undertakes a cost-benefit calculation with the aim of optimization/maximization.
5. In order to undertake this calculation, the agent needs information about his possible choices, the consequences of his actions, etc.” [49]

22Each sentence, and almost each word, in such a list raises sociological problems – which cannot all be addressed in this article. Instead, I will consider here the problems that are presented as “critical debates” by the book under review. It is in these instances that the book offers the most avenues of inquiry and provides the most exemplary demonstrations. The first issue concerns the meaning of rationality for a theory that describes itself as “rational” in its very title. The second is about the universality of the theory or lack thereof. Does it aim to apply to all social processes (since, as the first postulate above states, society is comprised of individuals – and we know that individuals are constantly making choices) or only to some social processes? Or does it only apply at certain specific moments? The final issue involves rational choice theory’s methods of analysis: precisely because they are “rational”, can we not – and must we not – assess them using the more effective scientific tools provided by mathematics? By allowing formalization and modeling, rational choice theory would thus enable the social sciences to become more rigorous and fertile. I turn now to an examination of these three issues.

23If one adheres to the five postulates presented as an initial reference point in Rational Choice in Political Science, a matter of central importance is eclipsed. This becomes apparent if we consider the somewhat cynical formulation, advanced in 1975 by François Bourricaud, of the five axioms of “neo-individualism” (the term he used at the time). With admirable dryness, Bourricaud laid out these axioms as follows:


“1. To explain the functioning of a society, the preferences of the individuals that comprise it are relevant.
2. The individual actor makes choices according to a subjective assessment of his interests.
3. The individual actor is indifferent – or at least does not give the highest priority – to the consequences that his action can bring about for others.
4. The individual actor ignores – or at least only vaguely grasps – the consequences that his decision can have for others.
5. The individual actor is incapable of predicting, and thus controlling, all the consequences of his own action.” [50]

25A superficial reading would lead one to think that these two lists of five points each come from the same intellectual universe. Yet this is not the case. As a proper methodological individualist, Bourricaud was a non-consequentialist: the individual actor could not know the consequences of his decisions for others – even more so because he was already largely incapable of predicting the consequences of his decisions for himself (and, as a general rule, knowing the consequences for others would in any case leave him indifferent). Conversely, rational choice theory is necessarily consequentialist: when making a choice, the actor habitually assesses the consequences that can result for himself. Rational choice theory – and this is a crucial element – also holds that the actor can, at least in part, effectively predict the consequences of his decisions. In some cases, moreover, the actor takes into account the consequences for others of his decisions – at least insofar as such consequences could ultimately be unfavorable for him. Assessment of such consequences thus involves several different kinds of judgment: axiological, instrumental, probabilistic, etc. This point opens up a considerable epistemological and philosophical debate, one that I cannot delve into here, especially since it is virtually absent from the book under review. [51] But the existence of such a debate must not be forgotten; indeed, it will be recalled many times in the course of the following analysis.

Rational choice: rational in what sense?

26A first “critical debate” is opened over the issue of the content that rational choice theory gives to the “rationality” of the individual. At first glance, one would be tempted to retain the most typical meaning of the term “rationality” – that which characterizes homo economicus. Qualifiers abound: “selfish”, “materialistic”, “utilitarian”, “individualistic”, “anti-social”, “calculating”, “strategic”. [52] But this would be to close the debate before it is even opened. Several scholars rightly explain that the rational choice approach can easily account for “apparently irrational behavior”, since such behavior can be compared to the behavior that a rational attitude would produce in the same situation. As Bots remarks, “An actor can be poorly informed (some of his factual beliefs are false), mistaken (some of his causal beliefs are false), or misled (some of his evaluative beliefs are false).” [53] I will clarify this observation with three remarks.

27Firstly, no one contests that the choice of ends belongs to the individual; and that when analyzing an action sequence, these ends must be considered as data. The individual can rationally pursue objectives that are not in the least bit selfish or materialistic. He could wish to devote himself to a collective cause or to make sacrifices for a good that he deems superior – all while fully remaining a rational actor who is able to calculate how to achieve these preferences. As Pamp remarks, “Contrary to an overly widespread idea, actors’ preferences are not necessarily materialistic in the strict sense. A utility function can encompass all kinds of altruistic or social ends.” [54] To say, therefore, that the rational choice paradigm “does not offer very heartening postulates about human nature”, or “is hardly comforting” is to aim at the wrong target. [55] In fact, in my view, the opposite is the case – as will be explored later in this article.

28Secondly, one must take full measure of the meaning of a “utility calculation” in social life. It can certainly refer to a pure Olsonian calculation, with which everyone is familiar – that which leads the calculating worker to hope that a strike will be massive so that it extracts concessions from his employer and to decide not to participate in the strike so as to benefit from a “free pass”. But rational calculations multiply rapidly, forcing the actor to make far more subtle decisions that considerably complicate the analysis but do not escape the model. Yves Schemeil appropriately cites Erving Goffman and Howard Becker, “whose actors consistently make more or less successful calculations”. He notes, furthermore, that “Goffman’s work abounds with episodes in which the actor’s sagacity is severely put to the test, compelling him to make incessant calculations about the utility of his most habitual gestures.” [56] For instance: I had decided to go to the demonstration, but it’s starting to rain; should I still go? Or: I had decided to go to the demonstration, but then a sick friend called me to ask a favor; should I give priority to my friend? Or: I had decided to go to the demonstration, but then I learned that a union I really don’t like will lead the protest march; should I attend or not? [57] In the same way, the vote has been the subject of very detailed analyses that seek to understand how the voter makes a choice. For the past two decades, scholars have thus explored not the rational voter, as conceived by Downs, but rather the promising line of inquiry of the “reasoning voter”. The latter approach has enabled a more satisfactory understanding of the rationality of voting. [58]

29Finally, even the “absurd decisions” studied effectively by Christian Morel [59] can be elucidated through rational choice theory. To highlight cognitive errors by analyzing extreme cases – in which decisions made have consequences that are exactly the opposite of those intended, sometimes tragically so – is not to discard the rational choice paradigm. In such cases, rationality is actually constantly present, at three levels: that of the analyst exploring “radical and persistent errors” in a perfectly rational manner; that of the social actor being studied precisely for his flawed, or more often suspended, [60] rationality; and that of a rationality whose proper use would have avoided the catastrophic consequences of the errors committed. I will subsequently return to these three aspects of rationality.

30At its core, rational choice theory implies only that the social actor has the capacity to set goals for himself, that he is able to decide what he is or is not going to do, and that he makes decisions following a process of reasoning – a calculation about what seems preferable to him. Viewed thus in elemental form, rational choice theory is a tool for describing an observable sequence that can be logically reconstructed. It does not mean, or at least it must not mean, that such a description of a decision sequence, and often of a strategic interaction, exhausts the explanation sought. Everyone knows that a young high school graduate makes a choice about which field of study to pursue in college based on pressing social factors. Yet it cannot be denied that this same graduate sets goals, obtains information, undertakes a process of reasoning, and makes a decision. I do not see why a sociologist would thus close their eyes to this and depict the actor as a sleepwalker, unconscious of the forces that drive him. To restate the obvious, the young graduate’s decision might be unexpected, even surprising, given what the social factors would seem to dictate. Moreover, the combination and complexity of these factors prevent us from predicting with a minimum of certainty the decision the student will take. Finally, the considerable expansion of higher education options in France over the past several years allows for far more individualized strategies than in the past. What probably distorts the debate over rational choice theory is left unsaid: when there is a choice, it is assumed that there is freedom; and sociologists are loath, with good reason, to describe the social actor as “free”. Rational choice theory is thus rejected because the actor’s freedom of choice is rejected. I have treated this problem at length elsewhere. [61] Here, I will just say that the concepts of freedom and social determination exist in two intellectual universes that do not meet and that cannot semantically meet. All sociologists are led to refer to man’s “power to act” in objectifying terms (autonomy of the intentional agent, social practice produced by schemes of perception and evaluation, capacity of an actor to choose between several options, etc.) – which exempts them from the impossible investigation into human freedom.

31Studies based on rational choice theory constitute just one particular case. The essential characteristic of all scholarly studies, and not only in sociology, is to limit, via a methodological decision, the part of the real on which the inquiry focuses. This is done, however, without ignoring that other parts of the real exist and can also be elucidated. The least scholars can do is grant a presumption of scientific rigor to works that examine the parts of the real that we ourselves do not study – and thus not reject outright paradigms constituted to deal with these other parts. The editors of Rational Choice in Political Science are certainly tempted to stop there. According to them, the rationalist approach must be envisioned “as a particular and partial mode of deciphering social phenomena”. It is, in effect, “a simple tool for knowledge”. [62] A final slip of the tongue perhaps reveals the core of their thinking: they call for a “combination of rational choice theory and of approaches that are more sociological”. [63] They thus place rational choice theory on the side of approaches that are not very sociological in nature – leading one to wonder whether they should have been bolder in their stance.

Rational choice: but only sometimes and in certain areas?

32The evidently central question of rational choice theory’s sphere of validity opens up a second particularly rich “critical debate”, one that concerns the domains that lend themselves more than others to use of the paradigm. Here it is necessary to return briefly to the fundamental distinction between methodological individualism and rational choice theory. For methodological individualism, the social world is a sum of individuals. To be studied sociologically, all the social entities with which one is familiar (the state, institutions, systems of representation) must, in the final analysis, be boiled down to the individual “atoms” of which they are constituted. For its part, rational choice theory does not adopt this vision of the social world. Even if it can be applied to individual subjects – for example, the prisoner faced with his dilemma – rational choice theory does not assume methodological individualism in the way that, for demonstrative purposes, game theory does. The paradigm can just as well apply to groups, and rational choices are present in political or union action, in companies, and in institutions of all kinds. In this sense, the state itself is, or can be, a “rational actor”. Rational Choice in Political Science explores three ways of addressing this key issue of a privileged sphere for the application of rational choice theory. I turn now to an examination of these three approaches.

33The first approach consists of designating research fields in which the rational choice paradigm seems like it should naturally apply, given that the decision-making processes at hand aim to be as rational as possible. This is the case in economics, for companies and consumers alike – and even more so for investors, whose decisions, as noted above, are based on advanced mathematical formalizations. [64] This is also the particular case of European studies. Scholars in this field remark that they do not expect to see it suddenly become a notable playground for rational choice theory; instead, European studies seems to offer a “space” suitable for a “supple variant” of rational choice theory. [65] Processes of Europeanization, in effect, presuppose the following: actors, hierarchies, actors’ preferences, interactions, strategies, action sequences, institutions and the procedures that they establish, informal rules, and recognized “ways of doing things”. [66] It is clear that all these terms would seem to encourage the use of rational choice analysis, in the broad sense that I have given it. And in fact, one finds these elements – beyond a “theoretical and methodological pluralism” that now is surely bypassed – in studies on the following subjects: negotiations within the European Council, the dynamics involved in European Union directives, cross-polity coordination (for example, in higher education or in defense), the adaptation and representation of interests at the European level, and the increasing socialization of national political actors in carrying out projects financed by the European Commission. Beyond the phenomenological variety of these fields, the research conducted always tracks interactions between agents with clearly identified objectives and obvious hierarchies of preferences. These agents know how to make use of the rules of the game, to locate strategic actors, and to carry an action through the medium term. They are, in short, actors who know how to make rational choices.

34The rationalist paradigm is also prevalent, for several scholars, in the domain of international relations – where, for example, negotiations between states are conducted by upper-level civil servants who work collectively to assess as precisely as possible the consequences of such negotiations. The mastery of inter-governmental exchanges is such that Gerald Schneider can assert that the “postulate of absolute rationality seems defensible with regard to negotiations between governments”. [67] This postulate can be expanded to include the unilateral decisions of states in international affairs – or at least those decisions that so engage the state (such as declarations of war) that they are made after intense discussions among the highest-level political leaders of the moment. [68] Even in dictatorships, where decisions of this nature are ultimately made by the dictator himself, they always involve discussions with military leaders, close advisers, and government or party figures. Such discussions enable scholars to get extremely close to the final solitary decision-making.

35A reading of one of Ian Kershaw’s recent books, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941, [69] allows us to give full meaning – if perhaps not the intended meaning – to Schneider’s postulate. In effect, Kershaw studies in meticulous detail how these fateful decisions of 1940-1941 were made. They include, for example, the English decision of May 1940 to refuse any negotiation with Germany and to pursue war; Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union; and Roosevelt’s decision to break from American neutrality and from the isolationism dominating American public opinion in order to aid Britain. Consider, for a moment, Japan’s decision, made in the fall of 1941, to wage war against the United States. This decision was achieved with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor of 7 December 1941. It was the subject of extraordinarily long discussions at almost daily meetings over the course of three months. The meeting of 1 November 1941, for instance, lasted seventeen hours. The proliferation and duration of the debates do not necessarily correspond to the rationality of the final choice made. Yet they do at least attest to the fact that arguments were weighed, that all possibilities were very closely examined, that consequences were scrutinized, and that the reasoning of the various parties was tested – made to wrestle against other rationales and organized progressively into a hierarchy. Along the way, moreover, the Prime Minister, Prince Konoe, was driven to resign. He was replaced by the Army Minister, General Tojo – who shared, for a time, some of the reservations that had led his predecessor to resign. All things considered, was the decision to attack the United States a “rational choice”? Evidently not – if we hold to the classic canons of rationality – since the Japanese decision-makers finally agreed that defeat was inevitable in a war with the United States, and that waiting to fight this war (lost before it began!) would result in an even more disastrous, and thus more immediate, defeat. [70] The rationality at work was of another nature. The Japanese leaders could not accept a “loss of national prestige”. They believed they had attained prestige with their recent imperialistic expansion. They wished to defend to the end their “national honor” and to avoid becoming a third-rate nation. Prime Minister Tojo expressed this stance in lapidary fashion: “If this war was for self-existence, then we must be prepared to wage war, even if we foresaw eventual defeat.” [71]

36This case study, although too briefly explored here, contains rich lessons for our discussion. During those three months in Japan, it was indeed a “rational choice” that was undertaken, in the sense of the rational choice paradigm. All positions were expressed, information about the situation was weighed, consequences were evaluated, arbitration took place after in-depth debates, and a decision finally emerged. This rationality, however, was that of a social group making a decision. The group could rationally, for example, prefer defeat to dishonor (perceived as such). It could, as noted above, take the risk of a “national hara-kiri” rather than submit to foreign dictates. [72] Here, we again encounter the central issues previously evoked. We cannot, as easily as rational choice theory suggests, put aside the rationality of the reasoning undertaken to make a choice, the preferences outlined, or thus the subjective assessment of what is decisive (honor or defeat?). In the final analysis, a rational choice is a choice that can be explained by an observer, himself equipped with scientific reason. It is in this sense that Kershaw’s Fateful Choices can be taken as an example of the use of rational choice theory – even if it is not only that. [73] If an observer is able to explain a choice, it is because this choice was, at least in part, conceived by the actors themselves as explainable. The actors themselves understood their reasons, and thus, their rationality.

37The second method for allowing rational choice theory a sphere of significance is to consider it as one possible approach among others within an explanatory system that is eclectic, or at least agglutinative. The classic example of this, which unfortunately provokes despair, is that of the “three new institutionalisms”. [74] Rational Choice in Political Science accords this position another opportunity to express itself, by means of a long article by Mark Aspinwell and Gerald Schneider. [75] This article was first published in the European Journal of Political Research[76] and then translated into French – as was the famous, and equally despair-provoking, article by Peter Hall and Rosemary Taylor. [77] Aspinwall and Schneider insist upon placing at least two approaches under the same umbrella of “new institutionalism”, which they then study simultaneously: sociological and historical, or constructivist, institutionalism and the institutionalism of rational choice. They pursue this method even while stressing that these two approaches are opposed and that, moreover, “no consensus definition of institutions and their salient attributes has been reached”. [78] For some scholars, institutions are “modes of rational behavior”. For others, they are “coherent and long-term repertories of thought or of behavior”. For still others, institutions are “shared symbolic universes”, or even “institutionalized culture”. Formal rules, procedures, norms, and cognitive frameworks can also be included; as can ideas, representations, and “the subconscious and pre-rational dimensions of human behavior”. Finally, “institutions” can refer to short-term decision-making strategies as well as to long-term processes of internalization or myth-making. One could write a “problematized history” of the term. [79]

38When “institution” and “the institutional” reveal such extreme diversity, it has to be recognized that the term loses its distinctive meaning and can be used in any and every way. It is a mystery of the social sciences that such high-quality minds have devoted so much time, energy, and ink attempting to convince us that the three or four new institutionalisms have something in common – despite consistently demonstrating that these institutionalisms are opposed to each other in almost every respect. If a regulatory authority for political science existed, one of its first actions would have to be to outlaw the expression “new institutionalism”. The term “institution” has lost a stable meaning, and all sociological studies dissolve into utter chaos with regard to it. After 36 pages of effort, this is essentially the conclusion that Aspinwall and Schneider reach when they remark, “From all perspectives, the future of institutionalism in European integration studies thus looks daunting.” [80]

39I gladly shift gears now to address the “model of the three I’s” put forward since the late 1990s by Yves Surel and Bruno Palier [81] and included in Rational Choice in Political Science in the form of a long article on the topic by Surel. [82] Within the limited framework of this review essay, the model of the “three I’s” calls for three remarks. Firstly, while Surel explicitly situates himself as an intellectual descendant of the three new institutionalisms, he also observes that “the varied definitions of the notion of institution” in this theoretical haze are “detrimental because they serve as a source of confusion”. The “three I’s” thus allow for better “distinctions” to be made. Moreover, they even enable a “transcending” of the various institutionalisms – by proposing that scholars work from interests, institutions, and ideas, on the basis of clear analytical definitions.

40Secondly, Surel cautiously adheres, for the time being, to an approach that he describes as “methodological and heuristic”. He defines this approach as “a research method with a descriptive quality” and as a “protocol” that can help to “define combinations of analytical elements”. There is nothing objectionable in this – even if it is surely too limited an ambition. Its most marked contribution lies in the sequencing operation that the model calls for. This sequencing takes place at two levels. Each of the “I’s” has its own temporality, and each study must reconstruct these polyphonic temporalities. In addition, in any process, the role of each variable differs over time. Interests or ideas can be determinant at any given moment, since the weight of institutionalization dominates the sequence until interests once more take over. In this way, the model of the “three I’s” offers its solution to the issue of a legitimate domain for rational choice theory. The rationality with which social actors are endowed (Surel specifies right away that this rationality is “limited”) is taken into consideration at certain moments, which must be located. Analysis of these moments is then conducted via the rational choice paradigm – which includes “the use of formal and quantifiable indicators”. [83] This approach still entails, as Bouillaud rightly observes, a simple organization of “multiple interpretive frameworks embedded within each other”. [84] Yet the pedagogical clarity, the honesty of the enterprise, and – it must be recognized – the mnemonic cleverness of its naming deserve consideration, especially since the “three I’s” open, in their way, the investigation I now undertake.

41French political science seems to be in the process of balkanization. To paraphrase Bouillaud, it seems to be engaged in the endless fragmentation of its object of study. [85] This development is certainly consistent with the dynamic taking place in all sciences, by which the apportioning of that part of the real which is to be studied is becoming increasingly narrow. This narrowing has as much to do with the sociological characteristics that govern scholarly communities as with the nature of research. Yet it must not be forgotten that in the natural sciences, this fragmentation occurs alongside a quest for a general theory – such as the “Grand Unified Theory” of fundamental interactions in physics. Such a quest is cruelly lacking in political studies today. [86]

42For those who would set out to construct such an essential general theory of politics, the questions to be taken into account are neither surprising nor unsolvable – yet it is necessary to know how to articulate them. Reference to rationality has its place at several levels. What is the role of rationality in the social construction of politics? [87] And what contribution today do the results obtained by social science research make to the social construction of politics? How does the rationality involved coalesce with symbolic, aesthetic, ethical, and even sentimental [88] modalities to constitute various entities’ relationships to politics? With regard to political action, what is the role of rational calculation in individual decisions (to vote, to join an organization, to mobilize, to emigrate) and in collective or institutional decisions (to judge an alleged offender, to negotiate at an international conference, to select the layout for a high-speed route or for a pipeline)? It must be recognized that rationality is at least partially at work in these situations; and therefore, that rational choice theory has some degree of sociological validity – especially since the “rational phase”, in the sense that I am giving it, exists in practically all cases. [89]

43But many other social and societal mechanisms must be incorporated into the “grand unification” of politics. I can only allude to these mechanisms here. What of, therefore, that which affects the totality of the political edifice: that which constructs or destroys the social order; that which produces breaks in temporality (a revolution or a crisis); that which weds together, depending on the moment, previously distinct social trends in the form of the mathematical image of strange attractors; and that which adheres to the conjuncture upon which the bulk of interaction theories focus. And what of the macrostructural basis upon which political society (to use this mediocre expression) is built: a territory, the social groups living within it, the gendered division maintained there, the social fields established there, the language or languages spoken there, and the relationships with the world developed there.

44After a long period in which theory centered on the conditions for valid sociological knowledge, the time has perhaps come to focus on the objects of this knowledge. This would involve exploration of the ways in which the great political mysteries and the discipline’s foremost areas of inquiry are organized. Is it not time to have at our disposal a sort of “periodic table of the political elements”? This would enable us not only to fix the list of these elements, but – to extend the metaphor of Mendeleev’s classification – to describe the forces of attraction between these elements, the diagonal relationships that link them to each other, the energies put into play, the regroupings to be undertaken, and the resulting properties. Rational choice would occupy several squares in this periodic table – a block, in fact – and it would make connections that varied according to the table’s rows and columns.

Rational choice: because it is rational, can it be formalized?

45The third and final critical debate opened up by Rational Choice in Political Science goes beyond the rational choice paradigm to examine the attitude of French political scientists towards modeling, quantification, and formalization in their discipline. Bouillaud’s contribution to the edited volume, which I have frequently cited, is devoted to this subject. Bouillaud demonstrates, firstly, as if it were necessary, that mathematical formalization has been virtually absent from French political science in recent decades. He shows that, in fact, an “aversion” for the practice has increased. He then puts forth a series of six explanatory and very convincing hypotheses; here, I will content myself with highly recommending consultation of these hypotheses. To consider the rational choice paradigm in this context potentially allows French political science to remove a few obstacles that compromise its scientific soundness. Formalization and modeling oblige the user to define the selected variables in a comprehensive manner, for purposes of their operationalization. Several of the authors insist on this point. As Yves Schemeil contends:


“With the rational choice method, the protocols established in the sciences are taken seriously: define one’s object, model it so as to be able to experiment with variations in the testing conditions, observe frequencies and occurrences. To undertake modeling […] is to reduce the number of variables and to take bets on the direction of causality.” [90]

47For his part, Olivier Pamp asserts:


“Formalization enables clarification of the hypotheses with which one begins. It allows one to deduce the logical implications of these hypotheses and to formulate clear predictions that can be tested quantitatively. Empirical tests subsequently offer the possibility of refining the model’s parameters.” [91]

49Finally, Pieter W. G. Bots makes the pointed remark that the use of a model [92] “requires the analyst to make explicit, with more precision than in other methods, his own thinking about the modes of reasoning employed by the various actors he is studying”. [93] In effect, the least one can expect from a scientist is that he be compelled “from the start, to reflect on his own assumptions – in other words, that he be obliged to engage in a reflexive exercise”. [94] If scholars must be reminded of this point, it is undoubtedly because their daily practice, in which formalization is absent, has moved away from this imperative.

50The anticipated result of modeling is to rigorously establish conclusions that could resemble scientific “laws” and thus be subjected to critique; and it is also to embark on the process of cumulativity that is so cruelly lacking in a large swath of French political science today. I will take the time here to provide a detailed example in which the “laws” (or, more modestly, the “hypotheses”) should stimulate discussion, confirmation, or refutation. Pamp’s essay in Rational Choice in Political Science addresses European Union member countries’ policies to restrict public spending in the period prior to the introduction of the euro, 1990-2001. [95] He formulates a series of hypotheses from the following simple initial observation: “people with low or average incomes prefer a situation of low unemployment generated by high growth, and they accept its correlate, relatively high inflation” – all the more so because “inflation objectively benefits low income groups, in that it tends to flatten income distribution”. He continues, “Conversely, property owners and those with above-average incomes prefer low inflation, even if this means higher unemployment.” [96] On this basis, an elementary model of economic policy can be formulated. As Pamp outlines:


“If a left-wing party wins an election, it will seek, in accordance with the preferences of its voters, to lower the unemployment rate; this policy will result in an increase in growth and in higher inflation. If a right-wing party wins an election, it will take action, in accordance with the preferences of its voters, so as to lower inflation. The result will be a recession, during which unemployment will rise and inflation will decline.” [97]

52Refining the model, however, causes counter-intuitive elements to crop up and the banality of the initial points to fade away. As Pamp elaborates:


“A foresighted and rational right-wing government can anticipate an electoral defeat. To the extent that such a government dislikes the public policies that its left-wing successor would put into place, it can choose to accrue debt. In this way, it forces the future government to dedicate resources to the debt at the expense of the latter’s preferred objectives – which include, for instance, reinvigorating the economy or increasing social services expenditures.” [98]

54This provides new insight into the economic policy pursued since 2007 under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. The left can evidently do likewise; it can reduce deficits so as to cause its right-wing successor government to use surpluses by, for example, reducing taxes. Another lesson from game theory is pertinent here, one that has to do with coalition governments, according to the “war of attrition” model. As Pamp explains:


“Each party in the coalition has an interest in placing the burden of fiscal adjustment on the other parties’ voters – which incites coalition members to impede solutions by waiting for others to take the initiative. This model thus predicts that a lowering of deficits is improbable, even if everyone agrees on the fact that it is necessary.” [99]

56A new “law” thus follows:


“As the number of parties in a coalition government increases, a policy of decreasing public spending becomes less likely.” [100]

58Successive hypotheses must evidently be combined, so as to enable a more precise specification of the sphere of validity of each hypothesis. If only a few parties are associated with the coalition government – and even more so if a single party is in power – they will “strategically use the debt to constrain future governments to act in accordance with their own partisan preferences”. [101] Even the left is subject to this rule: a government of the left that is not a coalition government will be driven to carry out a policy of fiscal restraint. Recognize that this result veers off the beaten path of the sociology of public policy – and that it merits attention for its failure to take reality into account. Conversely, when power is fragmented, parties behave as the initial law stipulated: the left spends freely and the right is more restrained. The reader will forgive the length of this exposition, which is intended to make the case for the relevance and usefulness of modeling as an approach in political science. I at least maintain hope that such an idea will still be heard. In addition to the one provided by Pamp, the book under review contains several other examples. [102] I also recommend other studies that explore this approach – an approach that will ultimately assert itself. [103]

59To end this section, allow me to make a personal comment. I cannot help but feel great sadness as I observe the striking regression in this domain of the dominant version of present-day French political science. Like others of my generation, I started teaching at a time when one notably had students learn the “laws” of parties and of party systems as established by Maurice Duverger. One could discuss these laws at leisure, refining or contesting them on the basis of works by Douglas Rae, Jean Blondel, Giovanni Sartori, Jean Charlot, and Georges Lavau. No one feared typologies or statistical constructions, which could turn out to be heuristic; no one objected to broad international comparisons; no one evaded the search for “laws” of social functioning; and no one thought it unseemly to test the conclusions of earlier scholars and to make one’s own contribution to a shared intellectual structure. At that time, one would have imagined that, 30 years later, we would have available to us an extensive scientific corpus – and that numerous regularities would have been observed and formalized in several political science fields. Today, unfortunately, scholars no longer seek “laws” of social functioning. This is due to the balkanization of the discipline, [104] to exacerbated forms of competition for academic jobs, to the general loss in our discipline of any mathematical or simple statistical competence, and to the obstinate refusal to conceive of the natural and social sciences as still linked by a kinship of methods and objectives [105] – in addition to a few other reasons of which everyone is aware. “Laws” of social functioning simultaneously make political society more intelligible and constitute the pedagogical base upon which a learned society is built.

60* * *

61The volume edited by Mathias Delori, Delphine Deschaux-Beaume, and Sabine Saurugger is thus immensely relevant because it raises, directly or indirectly, three issues that are central for the future of contemporary political science.

62In essence, underlying any use of the rational choice approach is the affirmation that the reasons behind a decision, an action, a behavior, or a preference can be elucidated. With the exception of cases in which man makes a decision by drawing lots (and even then, one could reconstruct the reasoning that led him to leave his decision to chance) or in cases of mental illness (although a psychiatrist could partially decipher the reasoning at work), human decision-making is normally the result of a deliberation in which arguments are weighed, preferences are compared, and expectations are advanced – within analytical frameworks that can, in large part, be reconstituted. One must assume, moreover, that the more a decision appears to have weighty consequences, the more the contemplation undertaken aims to be fully rational. Certainly, a decision can be absurd or unreasonable. Yet one can describe, in a logical manner, how one arrived at either type of decision. Rational choice theory thus has the great merit of reminding us that, for any kind of science, everything is intelligible at the end of the day – and that nothing is by nature unknowable. Analysis of a decision sequence and articulation of its successive steps definitely does not enable one to fully explain an action undertaken. Yet it does allow scholars to shed light on a clearly defined sequence, one that exists in almost all situations – and thus to pursue such a sequence with the aim of more comprehensive knowledge.

63Next, rational choice theory has the mischievous quality of beating its detractors at their own game. In France, rational choice theory has often been disseminated via scholarship critical of it. While most of the contributors to Rational Choice in Political Science make an effort to locate its pertinent aspects, the tone of the book remains markedly reserved about it. [106] And yet, no sociologist or political scientist who rejects rational choice theory would ever consider themselves irrational in their critical assessments or, moreover, in the ensemble of their scientific work. The fundamental value to which a scientist adheres is evidently cognitive rationality. Arguments are made, and must be made, according to rigorous norms of reasoning. The logical soundness of an argument lies at the very basis of any scientific exchange. Is it not then curious that the political scientist can, in a single stroke, be an eminently rational actor who employs a logical series of arguments in scientific debate as well as someone who uses that rationality to demonstrate that rational choice theory cannot be accepted? A bit more modesty towards other social actors, [107] and a bit less forgetting of the principles upon which the political scientist’s own practices are founded, would not be unwelcome.

64Finally, by dismissing with excessive vigor the sociological theory of rational choice, do we not risk jeopardizing rationality as a possible foundation for political society itself? During the past few decades, philosophers, along with sociologists, political scientists, and scientists, have been searching for a universal ethic capable of ending the terrible state of conflict in the world. They believe they have found such a possibility in man’s use of reason – since all men are endowed with reason and able to make arguments. [108] While I am unable to develop this point here, I wish to refer briefly to the debates around what is termed “discourse ethics”. Who cannot see that a complete rejection of rational choice theory as a scientific paradigm would undermine all hope for the rationalization – and thus the pacification – of the world? This is not to say that I accept rational choice theory as my own, with its precise technical modalities that are outlined and examined in this article. It seems to me, however, that rational choice theory is indispensable for a more general taking into account of the place of rationality in thought. [109]


  • [1]
    Mathias Delori, Delphine Deschaux-Beaume, and Sabine Saurugger (eds), Le choix rationnel en science politique: Débats critiques (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009). Translator’s note: This book has not been translated into English, but I have rendered its title in English in the body of this article for ease of reading.
  • [2]
    Those who remain skeptical about the scope of paradigm renewal, should consult the edited volume by Pierre Birnbaum and François Chazel, Théorie sociologique (Paris: PUF, 1975), an authority of its era. Birnbaum and Chazel centered this volume around the notion of a system, devoting almost all of the book’s eighty excerpts to functionalism, to general systems theory, to cybernetic models, and to the “social system confronted by history” (Marx, Ernst Bloch, Aron, Althusser, Touraine, etc.). With the few rare exceptions of symbolic interaction, relative deprivation, and, of course, the great classics (Durkheim, Weber), the excerpts reprinted in Birnbaum and Chazel’s collection no longer have any place – for better or for worse – in current research agendas.
  • [3]
    Yves Déloye, “Le temps des doutes ou le défi de la professionnalisation (1969-1978)”, Archives virtuelles de l’Association française de science politique,
  • [4]
    I ask my readers to excuse the relative lack of distinction with which I employ in this article the terms “paradigm”, “research agenda”, and “program” – the latter following Imre Lakatos’ usage. Constraints of space prevent me from providing a classic and useful in-depth discussion of these terms. Instead, I suggest consulting, for example, ed. Dominique Lecourt (ed.), Dictionnaire d’histoire et philosophie des sciences (Paris: PUF, 1999).
  • [5]
    Delphine Deschaux-Beaume and Wolf Dieter Eberwein, “Conclusion générale”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 303-22 (see, in particular, 304 and 309-10).
  • [6]
    In his contribution to the volume, Damien Rousselière judiciously observes: “Rational choice theory […] risks being confronted with new competition from theories of institutionalism […]. This development is to be welcomed on the academic front.” See Rousselière, “L’institutionnalisme du choix rationnel peut-il rendre compte de la présence de l’économie sociale dans le secteur culturel ? Un test empirique des théories contractualistes des organisations”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 226.
  • [7]
    Pierre Favre, “La science politique française et ses problématiques” (report presented to the conference, “Perspectives on French Political Science”, organized by the French Political Science Association, 19 June 1980), (excerpt only). Analysis of these paradigms was subsequently published in revised form. See Favre, “Science politique et sociologie”, in Henri Mendras and Michel Verret (eds), Les champs de la sociologie française (Paris: Armand Colin, 1988), 233-44.
  • [8]
    On this issue, see Christophe Bouillaud’s trenchant contribution to the edited volume, to which I will return. Bouillaud, “Réflexions sur les (non-) usages des ‘langages non naturels’ en science politique en France au tournant du 21e siècle”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 57-70.
  • [9]
    See the distinction between the “two polar opposites” of constructivism delineated by Michel Dobry in the preface to the 2009 edition of his Sociologie des crises politiques: La dynamique des mobilisations multisectorielles (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009), xxiv-xxviii. For reference, according to the first type of constructivism, “social reality and its various aspects […] are the product of the activity of men in society, of intentional as much as unintentional activity”. Since actors have very little control over the effects of their activity, these effects “impose themselves upon actors, almost always, by force of circumstance”. Actors cannot recognize in these effects the outcome of their own activity. The second type of constructivism adopts a very different perspective, which Dobry harshly critiques (he refers to “ravings”, “diversions”, and “singularly debased forms”). This constructivism “defines itself by affirming the ontological and/or causal primacy of linguistic categories”. Social reality becomes “the direct result of concepts, ‘stories’, and categories of everyday language – or, more generally, of ideas through which we learn the social and physical mode”.
  • [10]
    With the addition of Luc Boltanski’s sociology, this list reproduces the one I presented at the conference, “A Comparative Assessment of Teaching and Research in Political Sociology in Germany, France, and Italy”, organized by the Association of Teachers and Researchers of Political Science and the Center for Information and Research on Contemporary Germany, 28 November 1997. I will return shortly to the fact that one could still, until recently, conflate “political science” and “political sociology”. I will also address the blind spots that this conflation caused.
  • [11]
    This assessment seems to be confirmed by the fact that the same paradigm shift, according to the same chronology, is taking place within at least some of the quasi-disciplines that are derived from political science. The sociology of social movements, dominated since the end of the 1990s by the “contentious politics” model, is now seeing this model strongly contested. The dominant paradigm has reached its limits and the question of the advent of a new paradigm is now being posed. See “Introduction”, in Olivier Fillieule, Éric Agrikoliansky, and Isabelle Sommier (eds), Penser les mouvements sociaux: Conflits sociaux et contestations dans les sociétés contemporaines (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), 7-8. I confess, however, that I am not convinced by the idea that instead of a new paradigm, “a hybrid and multi-centered approach” will be established. I do not believe that a polycentric research agenda can be scientifically effective – but the issue is worth debating.
  • [12]
    Bouillaud, “Réflexions sur les (non-) usages des ‘langages non naturels’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 65.
  • [13]
    Bouillaud takes the term “descriptivism” from Raymond Boudon’s Essais sur la théorie générale de la rationalité (Paris: PUF, 2007), 41, a book to which I will return.
  • [14]
    The frequent thematic regrouping of socio-historical studies around their lowest common denominator rarely enables the revelation of elements of comparison or the delineation of what could approach sociological regularities. See, for example, the issues of Genèses on administrative work, on transnational social action, and on expertise; or the issues of Politix on deception, on scandals, and on wars and peace: “L’observation historique du travail administratif”, ed. François Buton, special issue, Genèses, 72 (2008); “Actions sociales transnationales”, ed. Kenneth Bertrams and Sandrine Kott, special issue, Genèses, 71 (2008); “Devenir expert”, ed. Isabelle Backouche, special issue, Genèses, 70 (2008); “Impostures”, special issue, Politix, 74 (2006); “À l’épreuve du scandale”, special issue, Politix, 71 (2005); and “Guerres et paix”, special issue, Politix, 58 (2002). Evidently, anything can be compared, even the most dissimilar topics – but juxtaposition is not the same as comparison. The recent issue of the Revue française de science politique on the “Past and Present of Politicization” does not seem to escape this unfortunate tendency. See “Passé et présent de la politisation”, ed. Yves Déloye, special issue, Revue française de science politique, 60(1), 2010.
  • [15]
    See Déloye’s contribution to Science politique de l’Union européenne, a book to which I will return. Although he refers in his title to “socio-history”, Déloye actually situates himself within historical sociology. The authors of the book’s introduction, moreover, place Déloye within the purview of the “historical sociology of politics”, In effect, Déloye inserts himself in the longue – very longuedurée, drawing on authors such as Gary Marks, Stefano Bartolini, and Nobert Elias – the latter, notably, via Florence Delmotte’s re-reading of Elias. See Céline Belot and Paul Magnette, “Introduction”, in Céline Belot, Paul Magnette, and Sabine Saurugger (eds), Science politique de l’Union européenne (Paris: Economica, 2008), 3 and Déloye, “Socio-histoire”, in Science politique de l’Union européenne, 133-52.
  • [16]
    Michel Offerlé, “Haires et errances disciplinaires”, in Yves Déloye and Bernard Voutat (eds), Faire de la science politique (Paris: Belin, 2002), 255-64.
  • [17]
    See François Buton’s excellent article, “Portrait de politiste en socio-historien: la ‘socio-histoire’ dans les sciences politiques”, in François Buton and Nicolas Mariot (eds), Pratiques et méthodes de la socio-histoire (Paris: PUF, 2009), 21-42.
  • [18]
    Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).
  • [19]
    On the “Politix generation”, the “Politix effect”, and “the journal Politix, which has represented, since the mid-1980s, the shared perspective of a rising generation of self-styled ‘critical’ political scientists”, see Bouillaud’s emphatic remarks. Bouillaud, “Réflexions sur les (non-) usages des ‘langages non naturels’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 57-70. As in so many other domains, however, one must be careful not to view the Politix generation as “speaking with one voice”. It was not immune from competition, conflicts, reversals, and defections – which will one day have their own historian.
  • [20]
    On this point, one may refer to some of the arguments made by Boltanski in De la critique: Précis de sociologie de l’émancipation (Paris: Gallimard, 2009), 77-9.
  • [21]
    Antonin Cohen, Bernard Lacroix, and Philippe Riutort (eds), Nouveau manuel de science politique (Paris: La Découverte, 2009).
  • [22]
    The aim of such textbooks is to present and discuss competing paradigms so as to provide students with the knowledge to assess the paradigms’ respective relevance. See, among numerous examples, Daniel Kübler and Jacques de Maillard, Analyser les politiques publiques (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2009); Dario Battistella, Théories des relations internationales (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2006); and Saurugger, Théories et concepts de l’intégration européenne (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2010).
  • [23]
    “Men engaged in action are the least well placed to perceive the causes driving their actions (Durkheim) […] the individual is not transparent to himself […]. The discourses of ‘actors’ about their own actions rarely capture – and even less frequently explain – their actions.” See Nouveau manuel de science politique, 9.
  • [24]
    “‘Society is not composed of individuals’ (Marx). Societies […] cannot be viewed only or essentially as based on individuals.” See Nouveau manuel de science politique, 9.
  • [25]
    Boltanski, De la critique.
  • [26]
    The origin of this initiative lies in Bernard Lahire’s project. More recently, Frédéric Mérand has attempted – still clumsily – to confront new institutionalism as well as a form of French political sociology aligned with Bourdieu. See Mérand, “Les institutionnalistes (américains) devraient-ils lire les sociologues (français)?” Politique européenne, 25, 2008, 23-51.
  • [27]
    It would be informative to reconsider today all the articles and books that sought, without eliciting much attention, to contest Bourdieu’s theory through an intimate reading of his works. The range of such studies includes Frédéric Bon and Yves Schemeil, “La rationalisation de l’inconduite: comprendre le statut du politique chez Pierre Bourdieu”, Revue française de science politique, 30(6), 1980, 1198-229; Jon Elster, “Le pire des mondes possibles: à propos de La Distinction de Pierre Bourdieu”, Commentaire, 5(19), 1982, 442-51; Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Jeffrey C. Alexander, Fin de siècle Social Theory: Relativism, Reduction, and the Problem of Reason (London: Verso, 1995); Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, Le Savant et la politique: Essai sur le terrorisme sociologique de Pierre Bourdieu (Paris: Grasset, 1998); Louis Gruel, Pierre Bourdieu illusionniste (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005); and Pierre Verdrager, Ce que les savants pensent de nous et pourquoi ils ont tort: Critique de Pierre Bourdieu (Paris: La Découverte, 2010).
  • [28]
    Here I draw on Rousselière’s use of Lakatos’ Histoire et méthodologie des sciences sociales (Paris: PUF, 1994). See Rousselière, “L’institutionnalisme du choix rationnel”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 221. A similar remark is made by the authors of the introduction to Penser les mouvements sociaux with regard to the “contentious politics” paradigm. This paradigm has remained in place by integrating “for two decades all the critiques leveled at it without significantly reforming itself”. Its survival “is increasingly enabled at the price of the generalization of [the] meaning of [its principal concepts], of the diminished capacity of these concepts to explain protest phenomena and, above all, of their reduced ability to generate new research questions.” See “Introduction”, in Penser les mouvements sociaux, 8.
  • [29]
    It was so marginal that in 1996, I referred to French political science as being “isolated from the world”. See Pierre Favre and Nadine Dada, “La science politique en France”, in “La science politique en Europe: Formation, coopération, perspectives”, Conférence d’évaluation, Commission européenne et Institut d’études politiques de Paris, 1996, 214-49 (partially published as “La science politique française: une science à l’écart du monde?” in “Découverte de la science politique”, Les Cahiers français, 276 (1996): 23-30). I ask my readers to excuse these references to my former work, presented here as historical traces of past – and now bypassed – debates.
  • [30]
    Thus one of the editors of Le choix rationnel en science politique, Mathias Delori, is the translator or co-translator of an English article and a German article in the volume. His fellow editors are also trilingual. Moreover, the book is the result of a Franco-German training and research program held at the Institut d’études politiques in Grenoble, France. This program was open to other European scholars, an early sign of the times.
  • [31]
    This point is noted, with regard to rational choice theory, by the authors of the introduction to the book reviewed in this article: “Independent of the intrinsic value of any given paradigm, the gap between theoretical debates on the two sides of the Atlantic poses a problem, for it undermines the common conception of science as unitary and cumulative.” See Mathias Delori and Sabine Saurugger, “Introduction: Pour un plus grand pluralisme théorique et méthodologique en science politique”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 11-12.
  • [32]
    Belot, Magnette, and Saurugger (eds), Science politique de l’Union européenne.
  • [33]
    Belot and Magnette, “Introduction”, in Science politique de l’Union européenne, 2.
  • [34]
    A similar project motivates the editors of Penser les mouvements sociaux. They seek to take into account the anglophone scholarship, with which the French sociology of social movements is “tightly bound”, while simultaneously discerning and emphasizing the original features – “the contributions made by the theoretical approach, methodological framework and choice of field” – of approaches developed in France. See “Introduction”, in Penser les mouvements sociaux, 9.
  • [35]
    As evidenced by the numerous political sociology textbooks which continue to devote one chapter, distinct from all other chapters, to public policy.
  • [36]
    From the French language scholarship, see Battistella, Théories des relations internationales, 283-317. With regard to the construction of the European Union, see Saurugger, Théories et concepts de l’intégration européenne, 163-91. For interpretations of multilateralism, see Franck Petiteville, Le multilatéralisme (Paris: Montchrestien, 2009), 71-7.
  • [37]
    See, notably, Christine Sylvester, Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and J. Ann Tickner, Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
  • [38]
    Martha Finnemore, “Norms, culture, and world politics: insights from sociology’s institutionalism”, International Organization, 50(2), 1996, 325-47.
  • [39]
    Mark D. Aspinwall and Gerald Schneider highlight the emergence of sub-national characteristics within the European Union. The importance of such characteristics is still largely underestimated. See Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées: le tournant institutionnaliste dans la science politique et les études sur l’intégration européenne”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 103-39.
  • [40]
    Hugues Lagrange, “Violence, répression et civilisation des mœurs”, Les Cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, 47, 2002, 9-30.
  • [41]
    Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 23.
  • [42]
    Bouillaud, “Réflexions sur les (non-) usages des ‘langages non naturels’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 57-70.
  • [43]
    Olivier Giraud, “L’analyse des politiques publiques en Allemagne et les dimensions du pouvoir”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 87-100.
  • [44]
    Several contributions to this book, by several different authors, address the nature of and reasons for the European refusal of the rational choice paradigm. They also provide a precise chronology to this end. See, notably, Deschaux-Beaume and Eberwein, “Conclusion générale”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 304-9 as well as Gerald Schneider, “Qui a peur de John Nash? À propos de la place des approches de type ‘choix rationnel’ en Allemagne et en France”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 71-85. Schneider’s chapter treats European political science with severity in this regard. Yet not everyone was afraid of John Nash. Recall that in one of his first articles, Dobry conducted a long and critical exposition of Nash. See Dobry, “Note sur la théorie de l’interaction stratégique”, Arès, 1 (1978): 43-64. Moreover, even if the entry “rational choice” did not appear in the indices to any of the four volumes of Traité de science politique (1985), John Leca did provide a rapid overview of it in his contribution to this collection, via a presentation of William Riker and Jon Elster’s central arguments. See Leca, “Théorie politique”, in Madeleine Grawitz and Jean Leca (eds), Traité de science politique, vol.1, La science politique, science sociale, l’ordre politique (Paris: PUF, 1985), 95-6 and 107-10. It was not until the 1990s, however, that an increase in French-language sources on the subject enabled scholars to at least be informed about rational choice theory. In this respect, Richard Balme was a remarkable “whistle-blower”. In addition to his articles, see “Choix rationnel et vie politique”, ed. Richard Balme and Bruno Cautrès, special issue, L’Année sociologique, 47(2), 1997 and “La théorie du choix rationnel contre les sciences sociales? Bilan des débats contemporains”, ed. Axel Van Den Berg and André Blais, special issue, Sociologie et sociétés, 34(1), 2002. From January 1997 onwards, a “Network for Political Analysis and Rational Choice” at the Institut d’études politiques de Bordeaux (France), published La lettre R, which contained a copious French-language bibliography. This initiative, however, neither had an impact nor achieved posterity. Several authors have remarked that for willing Francophone readers, the most frequently used texts on rational choice theory are actually articles that take a hostile stance towards it and offer a correspondingly biased presentation. To gauge the chronological gap between the two sides of the Atlantic in this matter, recall the controversy over rational choice theory that became most intense between 1994 and 1996, with the publication of Donald Green and Ian Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) and the discussions reproduced in Jeffrey Friedman (ed.), The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). Since then, studies on the topic have obviously continued to appear, from scholars – including many economists – who are simply listed here as notable examples: John A. Ferejohn, Robert J. Franzese, James J. Heckman, Simon Hug, Elinor Ostrom, and George Tsebelis.
  • [45]
    Olivier Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques dans l’Union européenne: prise de décision rationnelle et contraintes institutionnelles”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 180.
  • [46]
    Aurélien Evrard, “L’intégration des énergies renouvelables aux politiques énergétiques de l’Allemagne et de la France: idées, institutions et stratégies politiques”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 258.
  • [47]
    Pieter W. G. Bots, “Analyser des réseaux d’acteurs par le prisme du choix rationnel et des perceptions subjectives”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 146.
  • [48]
    Bots, “Analyser des réseaux d’acteurs”, 146. For the moment, I will not elaborate on the fact that this formulation, taken literally, is totally unrealistic: who can evaluate the ultimate consequences of their choices?
  • [49]
    Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 14-15 and Deschaux-Beaume and Eberwein, “Conclusion générale”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 322.
  • [50]
    François Bourricaud, “Contre le sociologisme: une critique et des propositions”, supplement, Revue française de sociologie, 16, 1975, 595. Italics in the original.
  • [51]
    Despite the fact that the editors emphasize, at the outset of the volume, the centrality of this aspect of rational choice theory: “The expression [‘rational choice’] groups together the ensemble of phenomena that carry the mark of the strategic or ‘consequentialist’ rationality of human beings.” See Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 15.
  • [52]
    All these terms appear in Le choix rationnel en science politique. See, for example, 13-15, 21, and 23.
  • [53]
    Bots, “Analyser des réseaux d’acteurs”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 147. On this point, Bots refers to Sasan Rahmatian and Charlotte Hiatt, “Toward an information-based theory of irrational systems behavior”, Systems Research, 6(1), 1989, 7-16. See also Raul Magni-Berton’s essay, which, at the outset, introduces the taking into account of cognitive biases into the rational choice approach. Magni-Berton, “L’influence des clivages idéologiques sur les jugements politiques rétrospectifs: une comparaison entre six pays”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 164.
  • [54]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques dans l’Union européenne”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 180.
  • [55]
    Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 23.
  • [56]
    Yves Schemeil, “La mégère apprivoisée: vers un usage raisonné de l’approche par les choix rationnels en France”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 38.
  • [57]
    These examples are evidently less stimulating for political science analysis, even if they refer to common and often observed situations. With regard to demonstrations, the taking into account of calculations obviously did not originate with recent developments in rational choice theory. See Dobry, “Calcul, concurrence et gestion du sens: quelques réflexions à propos des manifestations étudiantes de novembre-décembre 1986”, in Pierre Favre (ed.) La manifestation (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1990), 357-86.
  • [58]
    For a first encounter with this literature, see Samuel L. Popkin, The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) and Vincent Tiberj, “Compétence et repérage politiques en France et aux États-Unis: une contribution au modèle de ‘l’électeur raisonnant’”, Revue française de science politique, 54(2), 2004, 261-87.
  • [59]
    Christian Morel, Les décisions absurdes: Sociologie des erreurs radicales et persistantes (Paris: Gallimard, 2002). In another register, see Boudon’s classic work, L’art de se persuader des idées douteuses, fragiles ou fausses (Paris: Fayard, 1990).
  • [60]
    Taking up Herbert Simon’s old concept, Morel discusses a limited rationality. In addition, he stresses the frequency of “the intimate coexistence of a logical-mathematical rationality and an elementary level of rationality”. See Morel, Les décisions absurdes, 159. Engineers or mathematicians, who are trained in scientific rationality, can commit gross errors of reasoning in their everyday professional lives.
  • [61]
    Favre, Comprendre le monde pour le changer: Épistémologie du politique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2005), chapter 3.
  • [62]
    Le choix rationnel en science politique, 17. See also 12 (where an identical expression is used) and 72n8 (where Schneider evokes a “methodological theory”). The first French presentations of rational choice theory cautiously stopped at this point, using titles such as, “Rational choice: a methodology more than a theory”. See John Huber, Sylvain Brouard, and Éric Kerrouche, “L’analyse du choix rationnel en science politique”, Revue internationale de politique comparée, 4(1), 1997, 115.
  • [63]
    Deschaux-Beaume and Eberwein, “Conclusion générale”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 322.
  • [64]
    See, for example, Nicolas Bouleau, Mathématiques et risques financiers (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2009).
  • [65]
    Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 24.
  • [66]
    To flesh out this enumeration, see Richard Balme and Sylvain Brouard, “Les conséquences des choix politiques: choix rationnel et action publique”, Revue française de science politique, 55(1), 2005, 33-50 and Claudio M. Radaelli, “The Europeanization of public policy”, in Kevin Featherstone and Claudio M. Radaelli (eds), The Politics of Europeanization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also Saurugger, Théories et concepts de l’intégration européenne, 196-210.
  • [67]
    Schneider, “Qui a peur de John Nash?” 83. In the essay co-authored with Aspinwall, Schneider observes, “The rational choice approach first comfortably found its way into international relations, where it assumes that actors behave in a strategic manner, adapting their strategies and beliefs to the assumed actions of other players.” Moreover, Schneider pertinently shows that the mechanisms at the origin of the “democratic peace” can be effectively grasped using the rational choice model. See Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 115, and Schneider, “Qui a peur de John Nash?” 75-6. On the postulate concerning state leaders’ rationality in matters of foreign policy, see Battistella, Théories des relations internationales, chapter 10.
  • [68]
    Aspinwall and Schneider make this remark almost inadvertently, in the course of a more general discussion: “Finally, agents may act differently depending on what is at stake. As the perceived stakes rise, it is fully plausible that agents will become more ‘rationalist’ in their actions. They will carefully consider the costs and benefits, and the risks and opportunities, of given outcomes.” See Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 136. If we uphold the notion that as choices become more decisive, rational choice theory becomes more valid, we confer special importance on the rational choice paradigm – notably with regard to political science research that examines decisions that can have crucial effects on society.
  • [69]
    Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 (New York: Allen Lane, 2007).
  • [70]
    Kershaw points out the irrationality of the first debates, held on 6 September 1941: “It was a worrying assessment, an irrational one for a nation likely to embark upon a major war against a country with overwhelming advantages in strength and resources. The line of argument contained obvious flaws, weaknesses and untested assumptions.” Two months later, on 5 November, the line of argument that fails to convince was in place: “This was the ultimate reasoning for war. Peace but austerity in a world dominated by America, or war with probable defeat but upholding national honor were the alternatives. War was seen as preferable.” (Kershaw, Fateful Choices, 344 and 365-6).
  • [71]
    Kershaw, Fateful Choices, 370.
  • [72]
    Which does not mean that a rationality that extends beyond that of the reference group and accounts for broader arguments (the price of human lives involved) cannot, and must not, be preferable. I will return in detail to this point.
  • [73]
    Kershaw gives an important place to path dependency in his book, without actually using the term. He is evidently not a theorist of foreign policy decisions; and the international relations scholar should place this meticulous study within the debates that have multiplied since the classic studies of the 1970s by figures such as Robert Jervis, Graham Allison, and John Mueller.
  • [74]
    Or even four “new institutionalisms”, according to Saurugger. See Saurugger, Théories et concepts de l’intégration européenne, 193-226.
  • [75]
    Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 103-39.
  • [76]
    Aspinwall and Schneider, “Same menu, separate tables: the institutionalist turn in political science and the study of European integration”, European Journal of Political Research, 38, 2000, 1-36.
  • [77]
    Peter A. Hall and Rosemary C. R. Taylor, “Political science and the Three New Institutionalisms”, Political Studies, 44, 1996, 936-57. For the French translation, see Hall and Taylor, “La science politique et les trois néo-institutionnalismes”, Revue française de science politique, 47(3-4), 1997, 469-96.
  • [78]
    Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 104. The same troubling assessment is made by Hans Keman and cited by Aspinwall and Schneider: “New institutionalism is characterized by an obvious lack of conceptual precision with regard to the issue of institutions and their definition.” See Keman, “Approaches to the analysis of institutions”, in Bernard Steunenberg and Frans van Vught (eds), Political Institutions and Public Policy: Perspectives on European Decision Making (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), 1.
  • [79]
    These citations are taken in part from the articles by Aspinwall and Schneider and by Hall and Taylor. They are also taken from other contributions, such as Erhard Friedberg, “En lisant Hall et Taylor: néo-institutionnalisme et ordres locaux”, Revue française de science politique, 48(3-4), 1998, 507-14 and Alec Stone, “Le ‘néoinstitutionnalisme’: défis conceptuels et méthodologiques”, Politix, 5(20), 1992, 156-68.
  • [80]
    Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 138. Leca reaches the same conclusion in “‘The Empire Strikes Back!’ An uncanny view of the European Union. Part II: Empire, federation or what?” Government and Opposition, 45(2), 2010, 209-10.
  • [81]
    It is very instructive to trace the evolution of the theory of the “three I’s” across successive publications, beginning in 1998: Yves Surel, “Idées, intérêts, institutions dans l’analyse des politiques publiques”, Pouvoirs, 87, 1998, 161-78; Surel, “‘Trois i’”, in Laurie Boussaguet, Sophie Jacquot, and Pauline Ravinet (eds), Dictionnaire des politiques publiques (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2004), 452-9; and Bruno Palier and Yves Surel, “Les ‘Trois I’ et l’analyse de l’État en action”, Revue française de science politique, 55(1), 2005, 7-32.
  • [82]
    Surel, “L’action publique modélisée par les ‘trois I’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 229-55.
  • [83]
    The quotations by Surel in this section are taken from Surel, “L’action publique modélisée par les ‘trois I’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 230, 241, 246, 249, and 255.
  • [84]
    Bouillaud, “Réflexions sur les (non-) usages des ‘langages non naturels’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 69.
  • [85]
    This is demonstrated by the very book under review, in which the empirical cases examined cover an extremely scattered range of subjects. Some contributions, especially in the latter part of the book, are instructive in themselves but only marginally, if at all, apply the rational choice approach. This observation about a scattered range of subjects pertains today to many edited volumes. It evidently does not prevent Rational Choice in Political Science from being essential reading for anyone who wants to grasp the central theoretical debates of present-day political science.
  • [86]
    To this end, Aspinwall and Schneider note that “studies of single cases do not allow for valid generalizations as long as no explanatory model has been elaborated to assist the researcher in the inevitable task of counterfactual reasoning” – which consists of verifying a proposition of the type “if X did not occur, it is probable that Y will not occur”. Bouillaud’s diagnosis is more general and even more serious: “We abandoned […] any attempt at “grand theory”, we moved to the “middle-range theory” of Robert K. Merton, and soon turned towards an absence of theory […]. The weak impact of French political science abroad, it seems to me, has much to do with our lack of a theory to disseminate to the academic marketplace of ideas […]. French political science suffers from the inability to create new conceptual ensembles – new theories that would illuminate the real better than those theories we already have.” Compare this analysis to that of Mérand, who enumerates the obstacles that, according to him, prevent the dissemination of French political science. I fear that the limited international recognition of our discipline also has to do with more basic reasons. The lack of investment in transnational exchanges, long customary in France, is only slowly improving. See Aspinwall and Schneider, “Un menu commun pour des tables séparées”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 133; Bouillaud, “Réflexions sur les (non-) usages des ‘langages non naturels’”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 69-70; and Mérand, “Les institutionnalistes (américains)”, 46-8.
  • [87]
    We know, for example, that modes of reasoning in the social sciences are transmitted to society at large through the intermediary of journalists (who are, for the most part, trained in the social sciences), experts (who intervene in the media), and activists. The rational approach to social problems is thus more or less favored throughout society (or, to put it differently, the level of political competence necessarily increases as a consequence of this dissemination).
  • [88]
    In this way, one can bring the aforementioned “reasoning voter” face to face with the “sentimental citizen”. See George E. Marcus, The Sentimental Citizen: Emotion in Democratic Politics (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002) as well as the now classic work by Philippe Braud, L’émotion en politique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996).
  • [89]
    It does not, therefore, seem to me to be good methodology to begin with the idea that rational choice only exists for certain decisions or at a certain moment in the decision-making process – and not in other decisions or at other moments. The editors of Rational Choice in Political Science assert that some decisions, by nature, escape the rationalist paradigm. To this end, they refer to the question of “why a large number of citizens vote even though they know the final outcome will most probably be the same if they decide instead to go fishing”. Boudon set out to resolve precisely this question by using rational choice theory. He accomplished this task convincingly, by giving an account of the expanded rationality of electoral participation. See Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 19, and Boudon, “Le ‘paradoxe du vote’ et la théorie de la rationalité”, Revue française de sociologie, 38(2), 1997, 217-27. See also Blais, To Vote or Not to Vote? The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).
  • [90]
    Schemeil, “La mégère apprivoisée”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 44.
  • [91]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques dans l’Union européenne”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 182.
  • [92]
    In this case, the Dynamic Actor Network Analysis (DANA) model, first formulated in 1999-2000.
  • [93]
    Bots, “Analyser des réseaux d’acteurs”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 161.
  • [94]
    Bots, “Analyser des réseaux d’acteurs”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 161.
  • [95]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques dans l’Union européenne”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 179-201.
  • [96]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques”, 183.
  • [97]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques”, 184.
  • [98]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques”, 186.
  • [99]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques”, 189.
  • [100]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques”, 190.
  • [101]
    Pamp, “Expliquer la baisse des dépenses publiques”, 200.
  • [102]
    I refer here to the following contributions, some more convincing than others: Bots, “Analyser des réseaux d’acteurs”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 141-62; Magni-Berton, “L’influence des clivages idéologiques sur les jugements politiques rétrospectifs”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 163-78; and Rousselière, “L’institutionnalisme du choix rationnel”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 203-27.
  • [103]
    Beginning, for example, with the following edited volume: Hans-Peter Blossfeld and Gerald Prein (eds), Rational Choice Theory and Large Scale Data Analysis (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998). This collection opens with John H. Goldthorpe’s innovative essay: Goldthorpe, “The quantitative analysis of large-scale data-sets and rational action theory: for a sociological alliance”, European Sociological Review, 12(2), 1996, 109-26. For French-language scholarship on the other stalwart of the rational choice approach, institutional design, one can begin with Leca, “Modélisation ou description? ‘Rational choice strikes again’ or does it?” Revue française de science politique, 54(5), 2004, 849-56.
  • [104]
    American political science has not escaped this balkanization. It faces the menace of excessive specialization, a tendency that is increasingly counterproductive. See Lawrence M. Mead, “Scholasticism in political science”, Perspectives on Politics, 8(2), 2010, 453-64.
  • [105]
    A trace of which is still present in Rational Choice in Political Science, even if the editors distance themselves from it: “The argument is clear and relatively well-known: the use of mathematical languages does not enable one to grasp the complexity and the historical nature of social phenomena […]. [In this line of thinking], the human and social sciences can thus only be conceived of as ‘narrative sciences’.” See Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 16.
  • [106]
    The editors do not hide the fact that they initially had a “spontaneous aversion to rational choice theory” – indeed, in the words of Alban Bouvier, that they were “almost viscerally reticent” towards it. They are to be commended for engaging it in dialogue, even if they tend to limit the paradigm’s sphere of application. Furthermore, they lay their cards on the table, referring to themselves respectively as a “socio-historian”, a “rational constructivist”, and a “sociologist attentive to the historical peculiarities of social phenomena”. See Delori and Saurugger, “Introduction”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 13, 15, and 11n9.
  • [107]
    Schemeil likewise makes this point in his contribution: “Logically inherent in [rational choice] theory is the fact that any individual must, at all times, weigh his reasons for acting one way or another, or for not acting […]. To believe that it is impossible for an individual, even the most helpless, to think personally and reflexively about his own situation, is to show contempt for that individual’s capacities – a contempt that would be equivalent to a shameful social racism.” See Schemeil, “La mégère apprivoisée”, in Le choix rationnel en science politique, 45-6.
  • [108]
    Permit me to refer a second time to my Comprendre le monde pour le changer, 342-54. More recently, an immunologist and former director of the Pasteur Institute came to an analogous conclusion as a result of a very similar process of reasoning. See Philippe Kourilsky, Le temps de l’altruisme (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2009). With regard to this subject, one encounters a major sociological problem – one that is exactly homologous to the epistemological question of the status of knowledge, debated so extensively today. Simplifying to the extreme, three positions can be defended with regard to the exercise of human reason. The first position holds that the exercise of reason has no meaning locally; it is determined by the linguistic and cognitive system to which the reason-using actor belongs, and his reasoning is only relevant for his reference group (this is the radical constructivist position). The second position advances that reason is universal, and that each man has the potential to reason. Since rational discussion is thus possible between all men, one can – or one could – articulate principles that are valid for the totality of human society. Finally, the third position argues that rationality is effectively at work in the calculations and expectations of actors, but that this rationality is more or less constrained by social context and by the moment at which it is expressed. This is, according to Dobry’s expression, a “socially structured rationality”. See Dobry, preface, xxiii. As a sociologist, I am inclined to opt for the third position; but as a man, I want to, and must, adopt the second position.
  • [109]
    I wish to thank the three readers on the committee of the Revue française de science politique, as well as Olivier Fillieule, for their numerous suggestions on the first version of this article. Where I have not followed their recommendations, I ask for their indulgence.


In every social science, operative paradigms at any given time evolve ; some disappear, others gain and hold currency for a while. The paradigm configuration has already shifted several times in French political science. Nowadays we are seeing a new shift, determined by changes in scientific methods as well as social changes. Rational choice theory, hitherto generally out of favour in France, may well figure prominently in the next constellation of prevailing paradigms. The papers anthologized in the book Le choix rationnel en science politique, débats critiques [“Critical Debates on Rational Choice in Political Science”] specify the rationality content covered by the theory, its scope of validity and the analytical methods it employs.

Pierre Favre
Pierre Favre is University Professor Emeritus at the Institut d’études politiques de Grenoble (France), where he notably teaches the course, “Key Issues in Contemporary Sociology”. He is currently working on political iconographies. His recent publications include, “Ce que les Science Studies font à la science politique: réponse à Bruno Latour”, Revue française de science politique, 58(5), 2008, 817-29 [“What Science Studies Does to Political Science: Response to Bruno Latour”] and “Quand la police fabrique l’ordre social: un en deçà des politiques publiques de la police?” Revue française de science politique, 59(6), 2009, 1231-48 [“When the Police Produce the Social Order: Police Action Undergirding Public Policy?”]. A bibliography of his prior work appears in a volume he co-edited, L’atelier du politiste: Théories, actions, représentations, Pierre Favre, Olivier Fillieule, and Fabien Jobard (eds) (Paris: La Découverte, 2007) [The Political Scientist’s Workshop: Theories, Actions, Representations]. He can be contacted at.
Translated from French by 
Michelle Pinto
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